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April 11 - The Harder They Fall

Note from TheMirl.com: This is the first installment of a regular series by Joel Blumberg reviewing sports
movies from all eras.

Humphrey Bogart  was a major star in 1956 when he made the hard hitting boxing film "The Harder They
Fall".  And this film made almost fifty years ago holds up as well today as it did when it was first made.

Part of the reason is the performances of Bogart and Rod Steiger as adversaries.  

The other reason that this film holds up so well is that boxing in fifty years has not changed. And to take
the irony one step further, the fighter known as Toro Moreno in this film was based on a real fighter
(Primo Carnera) who fought as far back as the 1930s.

In the film, Moreno is a South American strongman brought to the States by promoter Nick Benko
(Steiger).  Moreno is huge, big and has the strength of many.  The only problem is that he can’t fight
worth a lick.

Benko hires a former sportswriter, Eddie Willis (Bogart) to serve as what we would now call a media
relations director.  Willis, a decent guy but out of a job because his paper cancelled his column,
becomes myopically concerned with money and thus overlooks Benko’s indecencies and unwittingly
becomes more than involved with the tragedy that follows.

You look at Nick Benko and he could be any one of a number or boxing promoters who have shown up
on the boxing landscape.  But of more significance, you look at Toro and other fighters in this story and it
is too easy to replace this fictional character with the many real fighters who, on the precipice of
success, fall sharply, writing their own Greek tragedies.   

Budd Schulberg wrote this hard hitting story as a follow up to his famous “On the Waterfront”, a film that
was a multi -Oscar winner two years earlier.  "Waterfront" also had as its hero a former boxer who
“coulda been a contender”, but instead ended up nearly getting his head bashed open.

Bogart and Steiger, bi-polar opposites in acting style, work off each other brilliantly.  Adding support are
Jan Sterling, as Bogart’s wife, and Harold J. Stone, who the same year played Rocky Graziano’s boozed
up dad in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”.  Former boxers and non-actors Max Baer and Jersey Joe
lend an air of authenticity to the film.

The biggest surprise is Mike Lane who played Toro.  A former pro wrestler from the early fifties, Lane
gives Toro a dimension that makes the viewer root for him to win, even though they know he has no
chance.

Shot in stark black and white without computer generated graphics, “The Harder They Fall” was Bogart’s
final film.  He would die less than a year after the film was completed.

And while Bogart is gone, much of boxing’s power and corruption depicted in this film still remains.